A researcher studying cells on a screen

Understanding motor neurons

Understanding motor neurons

Lab-based research to investigate the biology of motor neurons and other brain cells.

In MND, cells in the brain and spinal cord called motor neurons become damaged and die. This is called ‘neurodegeneration’.

We are studying the normal function of neurons and other cell types, so that we can work out how to slow, stop and eventually reverse the damage caused by neurodegeneration.

The human brain is an amazing organ - by far the most complex in our body - but behind our movements, thoughts, emotions and memory are billions of cells, each making connections with thousands of others! To fully understand what causes motor neurons to die in MND, we must first investigate in minute detail how these cells function normally. Why does this protein molecule move to a different part of the cell? What causes the tiny change in the electrical signal that this neuron produces?

Although it's complex, expensive and time-consuming work, the MND research community worldwide is making great progress, and hundreds of research papers are published every year, each of which is a step in the long journey towards understanding MND.

How we do this research

This type of research is the backbone of our work and takes place in University laboratories across Scotland. It’s sometimes called ‘basic science’, although that doesn’t mean it’s simple!

DNA, cells and electrical signals

Molecular biologists use DNA from donated blood or saliva samples to identify the “one-in-a-billion” genetic changes that can influence the risk of MND or affect its course.

Our cell biologists use high-power microscopes to measure cells and watch them under different conditions, while electrophysiologists measure the electrical activity that occurs when neurons (nerve cells) function normally.

Some of these cells are human cells that have been grown in the lab from donated stem cells (see case study below), or come from a post-mortem brain donation.

Learning from nature

Because the human brain is so complex, and so inaccessible, we use animals in some of our research: fruit flies, zebrafish and mice. We watch their behaviour and study their genes and cells. They are sometimes called ‘animal models’. Animal models can give important clues as to what we should study in humans.

All experiments using animals are tightly regulated and conducted according to strict welfare standards. Find out more on the University of Edinburgh Animal Research pages.

Making a difference

Motor neurone disease in a dish

The human brain is not just the most complex organ in the body, it’s also the most inaccessible. It’s just not possible for living people to donate brain tissue for research. But, the scientists need living human neurons to study and to test drug treatments on. To get around this problem we are developing stem cell technology so that we can make human neurons from a donated skin biopsy. Stem cells mean that we can generate a ready supply of neurons for use in the lab.

Do fish hold the key to spinal cord repair?

The tiny tropical zebrafish is much more than an attractive addition to a fishtank. These little animals have a remarkable ability: their spinal cord can repair itself. A fish can go from complete paralysis to swimming about again in a matter of weeks. We’re trying to understand how this works, and how it might eventually be used in humans.

Meet the researchers

Watch postdoctoral researcher Jenna Gregory talking about her research comparing patient and healthy control brain samples, looking for differences that could be targeted by drug treatments.

Related links

News (Feb 2018): Stem cell research reveals differences in cells from people with MND

News (Dec 2017): New insights into how motor neurons live and die in MND

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